NEW YORK – Stella Levi was one of the lucky ones when the 1,700 members of Rhodes’ Jewish community were moved from the Greek island to the Auschwitz concentration, 90 percent of the immediately murdered when arriving.
She survived to tell the tale, not just of the horror of what happened but what came before in a vibrant life of faith and getting along with Greek and Turkish neighborhoods, through Italian and then Nazi occupation.
It took a lot for her to talk about but author Michael Frank, who has written a book about it – One Hundred Saturdays: Stella Levi and the Search for a Lost World – recounts the remarkable life of a 99-year-old survivor.
Hers is the last voice of her family and that community and in a piece for The New York Times, he brought a saga about humanity and inhumanity, perseverance and patience and what it took for her to talk about it.
It began in the winter of 2015 when he met her at an event by chance, sitting next to her and he mentioned he had just come from a French lesson that ran later and she asked if he wanted to know about how the language had served her.
“When I arrived in Auschwitz,” she said almost matter-of-factly, “they didn’t know what to do with us. What kind of Jews don’t speak Yiddish? We were Judeo-Spanish-speaking Sephardic Italian Jews from the island of Rhodes, I tried to explain. They asked us if we spoke German. No. Polish? No. French? ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘French, I speak.’’
She told him: “Because we spoke French, at Auschwitz they put us with the French and Belgian women, who spoke French and Yiddish, a little German, too, enough so that they could translate and they could communicate. Since they understood what was going on, they managed to survive — and therefore so did we.”
The story didn’t end there.
The next morning he got a call from a mutual friend who said she was trying to collect her thoughts about her youth on Rhodes and wasn’t confident enough in writing English and asked if he would help.
Thus began 100 Saturdays of sitting with Stella Levi and hearing the story slowly unfold like an oral history of a time that’s both indelible and wanting to be forgotten because it’s just too terrible.
She talked of the Juderia neighborhood where she lived on the island, the family’s roots going back to the expulsion of News from Spain in 1942, telling Frank of the stories passed down by grandmothers, parents and siblings, stretching back into the 19th Century.
“I came to think of Stella as a modern-day Scheherazade who left me hanging, week to week, as she talked me through the story of her youth. She took me, eventually, to 1938, the year she and her fellow Jewish classmates were banished from school, an experience that made Stella feel, as she explained, like an animal. (“Animals don’t need to be educated, right?”) he wrote.
But she really didn’t want to talk much about Auschwitz and half a dozen other concentration camps she inexplicably survived.
“I don’t want to be a storyteller of the Shoah, atrophied and with my ideas fixed and unevolving,” she said when I pressed her. “I don’t want to see myself as a victim.”
She talked of when the Nazis seized the island from the Italians who broke away from the Axis and the suffocating weeks spent traveling by boat and train to Auschwitz with an entire deported community.
She talked of ceaseless fear but also of laughter at the absurdity of the predicament, and the sheer luck that let her survive to tell the stories that were lost when the voices of others were silenced forever.